An Artistic Question of Vulgarity Isabel Cole speaks out against the vulgarity surrounding genitalia through her simplified protest posters.

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t’s not often that you see art depicting penises and vaginas around Boston College. It might even seem shocking to read that sentence. How could one be so vulgar? That’s exactly what Isabel Cole, MCAS ’19, is trying to explain.

“Right now it’s sort of my own version of subversive art,” Cole said. “Looking at images that people associate with sex or vulgarity, and why those associations exist and playing with the idea of why people assume things are vulgar or sexual.”

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he applied psychology and studio art double major from Needham has been working on a series of pieces depicting these kinds of images. Cole’s inspiration for her artwork comes from the ’60s civil rights movement’s  protest posters. Cole is creating her own form of protest posters—using large canvases instead of the silkscreen used historically.

“Right now it’s sort of my own version of subversive art,” Cole said. “Looking at images that people associate with sex or vulgarity, and why those associations exist and playing with the idea of why people assume things are vulgar or sexual.”

Instead of complex protest posters depicting detailed, multicolor images of people or slogans, Cole is creating solid color simple line paintings to convey her meaning.

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hile protest posters have advocated for racial or class equality in the past, Cole is tackling a different message.

“Coming from a place of privilege, it’s not like I can experience what a minority is experiencing but as a woman I think we are all dealing with how our perception of the world is so gendered,” Cole said. “Dealing with the expectations we have for ourselves and what expectations people put on women—I guess I’m sort of ridiculing the expectations that people have for women and protesting that it’s ridiculous.”

Cole explained that women can often be viewed as little girls—while at the same time being sexualized. Through her art, she is advocating for the reclamation of female sexuality and the refusal to submit to the expectations that men force upon them. Often, sexuality is seen as vulgar even though it is something that most people encounter throughout their lives. Cole is working to flip the idea of vulgarity on its head.

“I do have a painting of a penis,” Cole said. “Why is everyone so turned off by a painting of a penis when that’s a lot of what’s in art? If you look at older Christian artwork, there’s a lot of nudity in it but it’s coming from a patriarchal view—I’m kind of looking at genitalia in a way that’s coming from more of a matriarchal view.”

“Why is it something that’s so shocking,” Cole said. “People have penises, people have vaginas.”

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he gave the examples drawn from a few of her other paintings. One features a papaya—an image often associated with a vagina. She questioned why that image is seen as gross or disturbing—after all, approximately half of the entire world has one. Another painting is a monkey’s fist holding a banana—dealing with genitalia and why it is either praised as a piece of your body or considered disgusting.

“Why is it something that’s so shocking,” Cole said. “People have penises, people have vaginas.”

Before this, Cole spent a lot of time working on abstract paintings—mostly of landscapes. This shift in medium came in part from some words from Sheila Gallagher, an associate professor in the fine arts department.

“Sheila was talking to me and she was like ‘You don’t want to be the rich white student at BC who comes to school and does studio art and paints abstract paintings,’” Cole said. “I felt like I wanted to find purpose in my artwork—being involved in certain protest events was a way to feel like I was making a difference—I wanted people to have a strong reaction to it.”

This change has been very recent for Cole. She really only began these protest pieces about three weeks ago. This is not to say that she hasn’t been working after making her decision. Cole spends a lot of time drawing in her sketchbook—presenting and discarding different ideas. She also does research online, looking at the shapes of food in comparison to body parts in order to decide if she wants to use that in her art. After drawing these images in her sketchbook, she redraws them on larger pieces of paper. Cole then photographs these larger drawings and projects them onto the canvas. She traces her image on to the canvas.

After the image is set, Cole paints the entire canvas around the white lines of the drawing in order to create a negative image. After that she uses a type of white paint fixative to go over the painting—this eliminates the brushstrokes and creates a very smooth surface. This smoothness and cleanliness is very important to Cole because she believes it complements the art’s simplicity. The length of this process varies based on the drawing itself, but often can take six or seven hours to complete.

“There is a lot of white feminism and a lot of testosterone flying around campus,” Cole said. “And a lot of ignorance that I’m perturbed by in people and some professors.”

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hile Cole has only recently been working this way, she has always been involved with art—she comes from a family of painters and artists. When she got to BC, she believed that she would only pursue a minor in studio art. Instead, she found herself as one of the less than 10 studio art majors on campus—using her art to converse with the BC community itself.

It is this community that informs much of her art. Cole likes BC, but not in the way that many BC students might. There are aspects of the community that Cole does not appreciate—but this is what she uses her art for.

“There is a lot of white feminism and a lot of testosterone flying around campus,” Cole said. “And a lot of ignorance that I’m perturbed by in people and some professors.”

Cole has been very interested in the way that some people on campus become complicit—they do not question what they see, if they see it at all.

“I think people will see something happening, whether it’s like someone’s being sexually assaulted or someone’s making a racist comment, and people choose to ignore that rather than pushing back against that and saying something is wrong,” Cole said. “So I think that definitely informs my work—the way that people choose to be a bystander that’s not effective or somewhat perpetuating the problem.”

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ole believes that her pushback against the norms of BC is a way for her to place herself in a setting that is more similar to real life.

This preparation for real life is bolstered by Cole’s desires to join the world and workforce after she graduates in June. She wants to move forward in the art world, be it in getting an MFA, working as a curator, working in art therapy, or becoming an assistant for an established artist. As of now, her plans are tentative, but she is confident that something will materialize.

Regardless of her eventual career, art has real meaning for Cole. Art has given her a community on campus and an understanding of what her own work.

“I guess it’s being able to authentically express yourself and what’s important to you,” Cole said.  “Art is a platform for people to speak out on issues that matter to them or that matter to people that they care about. I really view art as a platform to speak out about certain issues.”

With the other studio art majors, Cole has found an outlet to express herself and to figure out what she wants to do. To go through that process with others has been an immense help for Cole. Each of these artists processes their surroundings and pours it into their work— seeking to change the thoughts and feelings of those who come to see. Cole wants her audience to question themselves.

“I want my audience to come away questioning why they have those associations with those phallic objects or like why does a papaya remind them of a vagina or why does a banana remind them of a penis,” Cole said. “Walk away from the art questioning ‘Why did I have those thoughts and what does that mean for me?’”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

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